What's Gone Before: Strange things are afoot: a respected business man steals something from his own office, promptly falling into a coma when captured, and Mr. Amazing, the so-called "Spirit of Decency", tried to murder his own allies, apparently loyal to a mysterious figure lurking in the shadows. And now an unknown voice offers an explanation...
Ladeez and gentlemen...the Puppet!
The loose conglomerate of costumed adventurers called the Fellowship of the Midnight Sons stood about their secret headquarters, which was disguised under the auspices of the Trans-Dominion Shipping Company. Dennis Welbeck, the Dreamstalker, was in civilian dress, while Blacklight and Roberta, the robot, were garbed for action, as was the enigmatic Man-Fly who stood slightly apart from them. The Silhouette, only just donning her one-piece bathing suit costume, entered from a side door. Mr. Amazing was sprawled unconscious across the billards table, and on the coffee table was one Bartholomew Mortimer, who was not, to anyone's knowledge at least, a costumed adventurer.
Those who were conscious were staring at the phalanx of tall windows along one side of the room. One window had been jimmied open and rain pelted down around two figures standing just inside.
The one in front was a young man, scarcely sixteen or seventeen. He was dressed in a scarlet tunic with blue pants and brown safari boots. His red cowl concealed the upper half of his face, a stylized star symbol in the centre of his forehead. His gloves were odd-looking, reflecting a golden sheen, as if metallic.
The man behind him was taller and more powerfully built. He wore a black vest, out from which bloomed billowing scarlet sleeves. His tousers were red, but also ended in brown boots. He had a black beard, streaked with hints of silver, and the part of his face that was exposed revealed dark brown skin. His cowl was looser than his companion's, almost more a hood than a mask.
Dennis Welbeck instantly surmised the reason for that -- the man wore a turban beneath his costume. He was a Sikh.
"I repeat," said Blacklight, "who the blazes are you?"
The youth grinned and said, "I'm called Kid Gloves, and this is the Rajah."
"Kid Gloves and the Rajah?" remarked the Silhouette. "Sounds like a Sunday Funnies strip."
Kid Gloves frowned. "You, uh, haven't heard of us?" Blank stares answered him. "Geez Louise," he muttered, disappointed.
"That's not important right now, Kid," said the man identified as the Rajah, the trace of a Far Eastern accent in his words.
"And are you here as friends or foes?" inquired Dennis Welbeck, smoothing his immaculate mustache, already confident of the answer.
"Friends, of course. Sorry to barge in on you, what with this being your 'secret' headquarters and all. Perry and I worked out some deductive paradigms based on the necessary factors for a covert headquarters, cross-referencing it with sightings of various costumed types..."
"And Perry would be?" prodded Dennis.
"I guess you'd call him an electronic brain -- my design. I'm something of a genius."
While this discourse continued, the Man-Fly had quietly drifted over to the prone figure of Mr. Amazing. He had already assessed the newcomers, and evaluated their potential hostility. The Kid was obviously the leader of the two, by virtue of his enthusiasm and, according to what he said, a genius-level I.Q. The Rajah presumably was along to keep him from getting in over his head. Based on the beard, the skin colour, and the ceremonial knife the older man carried in his sash, the Man-Fly concluded, as Dennis Welbeck had, that he was a Sikh. The Man-Fly went one step further, by noting his ramroad bearing, and the careful way his eyes surveyed the room, that he had been a professional soldier, to boot.
All things considered, they had more pressing concerns than making new friends.
"You said something about knowing what we're faced with?" Dennis reminded him.
Suddenly the boyish grin was gone, and Kid Gloves looked every inch the serious man-of-action he obviously wanted to be. "Right." He strode toward the prostrate form of Bartholomew Mortimer.
Blacklight leaned toward Dennis Welbeck. "How do we know we can trust them?"
"We don't," was the good-natured response. "Keep an eye on them, of course, but I prefer to assume friendship, and wait for enmity to be proven."
"That can be a dangerous way to live," remarked the Rajah, over-hearing.
Dennis looked at him. "But more civilized."
"Yeah. We were right, Rajah," muttered Kid Gloves, oblivious to the other conversation as he leaned over Mortimer. He angled the man's head away from the group, so that they could glimpse the back of his neck. He pulled down the man's collar, exposing a disk the size of a silver dollar at the base of the man's skull. "Look familiar?"
"The Puppet," said the Rajah, ruefully.
"The Puppet," agreed the Kid.
"Who, or what, is the Puppet?" asked the Silhouette.
"You haven't had any run-ins with him yet, eh? Lucky you. He's a genius."
The Silhouette smirked. "Like you?"
Ignoring the hint a sarcasm in her tone, Kid Gloves said, "Maybe moreso."
* * *
In a penthouse apartment overlooking the lightning-lashed scape that was downtown Toronto, a man poured himself a liberal shot of cognac. He was a diminutive figure, standing less than four feet in height. He was swathed elegantly in a black tux with tails, a white rose in his lapel. On the table beside him was a high hat, the felt shimmering softly beneath the chandelier light. Lending the man a rather eerie appearance was a bizarre make-up job that rosified his cheeks, emphasized his eyelashes, and gave him two black lines descending to his chin from the corners of his mouth.
At first glance, he looked like a wooden ventriloquist's dummy come very much to life.
A big, burly man in a striped seaman's shirt came through the door, tossing his soaked overcoat at the coat rack. "It's raining bad, boss. Like cats and dogs only...only bigger."
"Canis lupus, perhaps?" remarked the dwarf drily.
"Nyah. Like wolves or something. Anyway, ain't no sign of Mr. Amazing. I figure those costumed freaks must've got him. No wonder. I think I saw the Man-Fly at the warehouse -- brr, but he gives me the willies."
"That's the reaction he wants you to infer from his rather outrageous visage, cretin. He's only a man."
"I don't know -- a face like that? The stories I've heard..." His voice drifted off, then, "Boss, what's a cretin?"
"It's what you are, Jerry, and no doubt your father and your father's father. I'm sure you come from a long line of cretins."
"Gee," Willy grinned, puffing his chest out proudly, "that's pretty gees for you."
"Pedigree-" He corrected. "Nevermind." The dwarf sighed. "I should not have been so over-eager as to confront the underworld bosses this prematurely. Power will be mine in but a few hours, and then I will have all the time in the world to promulgate my demands. But now I have inadvertently drawn the attention of various costumed types, the price I pay simply for the fun of showing off my acquistion -- the do-gooder, Mr. Amazing." He swirled his cognac around thoughtfully. "Bring me the documents supplied by Bartholomew Mortimer, I wish to be sure of the details."
"Right away, boss." Willy turned and moved briskly into a side room.
No sooner had he gone than there was a tremulous flutter outside, like the sails of a boat whipped by a gail. The little man turned as a man in a black and yellow costume alighted outside the French doors leading onto the roof. Under each arm were long, wing-like apparatus. The man wore a beaked mask, and cruel talons on his fingers. He stepped inside and stared at the little man with a dark, sardonic gleam in his eyes.
"The Raven, at your service." He bowed with mock reverence.
Ignoring his behaviour, the little man said, "It's about time. I want you to retrieve something for me that I lost earlier this evening. Fortunately, I can track it by a transponder signal emitted by a certain object on it, so you'll have no trouble locating it. Bringing it back, however -- well, you may encounter opposition. Use this if necessary," he held out a small metal disk. "It will make the opposition more...amenable."
"What's the package?" growled the Raven.
"It's a who, actually. Mr. Amazing. Bring him to me, him and a man named Mortimer -- if you can. If not, kill them both. I don't want Mr. Amazing talking about what he might know..."
* * *
"..an expert in neurology and psychology," explained the Rajah. "Who's turned his expertise to criminal enterprises involving mind control. We've run into him before."
"He's a little guy, a dwarf. From some of the things he's said, I get the impression he hasn't always been treated well," added Kid Gloves. "I guess I can sympathize with being bitter, but he's taken it wa-ay too far. I knew him before he started calling himself The Puppet -- he was one of my professors when I was minoring in neurology."
"When was this?" asked the Silhouette ironically. "When you were twelve?"
"Eleven actually. Anyway, you can't miss him, he dresses like Charlie McCarthy's psychotic twin. I guess it's his idea of a joke. People are like puppets to him, so he dresses like a puppet himself." He looked down at Mortimer again. "We got wind of his handiwork in Montreal -- a heist at the National Film Board of heavy wattage movie lights. We went to that city to investigate, and got lucky -- almost. We found him, but he got the drop on us and I suppose was all set to put those little nasties on us, but I broke out of where he was holding me, found the Rajah, and we were on the move again. Therefore, it was a draw: he didn't get us, but we didn't get him. And unfortunately, we couldn't quite figure out what he was up to. Now he's back in Toronto, and I still don't know what's going on."
"If he stole movie lights, maybe he wants to make a documentary," muttered the Silhouette.
"Given his ego, that's not too preposterous," responded the Rajah.
"The man in the shadows," offered Roberta quietly. They all turned toward her. She hesitated, then went on. "At the warehouse. The man in the shadows -- your Puppet, I assume -- he was talking about wresting control of the entire criminal class, and then the city itself."
Kid Gloves and the Rajah exchanged uncomfortable glances. "I've never known him to try anything that big before. His neuro-hijackers -- those disks -- are chillingly effective, but problematic for mass quantities. This all smacks of something...well, something bigger than I can imagine."
"The question is," interjected Dennis, "can you remove them?"
The Kid looked at him, his face pale. "Not without risking psychological and bio-chemical damage. They form an almost addictive bond with the brain, pumping it overriding signals. I suppose a man with an almost unbelievable strength of will could free himself, but don't bet on it. Only the Puppet can remove it safely -- we have to find him to deactivate them."
Dennis dragged his fingers through his hair. He had found himself accepted as a kind of de facto leader of this loose coalition which he bankrolled, but he was not at all sure he was suited to the task. He projected confidence, which the others seemed to respond to, but deep down inside, he knew he lacked the kind of penetrating insight and ability to critically assess a situation the way, for instance-
"Don't you dare!"
The Man-Fly was almost entirely invisible in the shadows in the darkened reception room. Like an elusive phantasm, he was on the verge of vanishing back into the stormy night, when Dennis' command forestalled him.
"Artie," Dennis begged, "if you've got something, let us in on it."
The Man-Fly had never formally agreed to be part of the Fellowship. He was a loner, prefering to work in the shadows. He had once said that big groups were too unwieldy.
He hesitated there in the darkness, enigmatic behind his inhuman mask as Kid Gloves' words returned to him, like faint echoes: "it's...bigger than I can imagine." Slowly, his arm stretched out into the light toward the others, a soiled piece of paper between two fingers. "On the sole of Mr. Amazing's boot -- a train ticket. It's wet, naturally, but the mud is only on the side facing away from his sole. Clearly he stepped on it prior to the rain, then almost instantly stepped into some mud which would've been produced by the rain, affixing it to his sole. That would make it about six o'clock this evening, when the rain started. Since the Puppet -- we'll assume it was he -- was meeting Bartholomew Mortimer outside the Silver and Gold insurance company at that time, this was clearly prior to his encounter with, and brainwashing by, the Puppet. Logically, Mr. Amazing was investigating something at the train station that led him to the Puppet."
"Consider it investigated." A rush of wind, a blur of black, and both Blacklight and the ticket vanished out the door.
"Come on Rajah," said Kid Gloves, leaping for the window, "to the sonic car!"
In moments, the group was effectively halved. In silence, the Man-Fly turned his eerie mask toward Dennis Welbeck, his glittering, multi-faceted eyes dead and impassive.
Dennis didn't need to see the face beneath to know the expression on the Man-Fly's features. He shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, old boy. Still, there's a lot we can do here. I've been bothered by something even as we talked it over -- why haven't I dreamed anything? As you all know, when dreaming, I can touch the thoughts of others, sensing evil acts being planned. That doesn't mean I pick up on every little petty crime, but it's odd that I haven't sensed the Puppet's scheme, assuming it's truly as big as we fear." Pulling a pocket watch from his smoking jacket, he said, "It's late enough that we can surmise the Puppet might be asleep, resting up for whatever he's got planned. So I suggest I attempt a little tete-a-tete -- Dreamstalker style."
"And where does that leave the rest of us?" asked the Silhouette.
"Tying up Mr. Amazing and your friend Mortimer," said the Man-Fly darkly. "Then we pick your brains and attempt to determine what the Puppet stole from an insurance company." He started toward the still unconscious Mr. Amazing, but a silver arm stopped him. The grotesque mask looked at the stern features of the robot girl and, in a surprisingly gentle voice, he said, "If we don't tie him up, and he wakes up still in the Puppet's control, he'll be a danger to us...and himself."
Slowly, ever so slowly, she looked down, and nodded. "I'll do it," she said.
Outside, thunder exploded like German bombs, lashing fire-yellow fingers across the charcoal sky. Rain pelted against the windows like bullets, as if nature herself was in turmoil.
Overhead, a dark, winged shape swooped down toward the secret headquarters of the Midnight Sons...
Next: Trouble's brewing on all fronts for our heroes. Remember that old saying, Divide and Conquer? Well the team's split up...does that make them ripe for conquering? Find out in seven days.
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